The deaths of Gallery K co-owners H. Marc Moyens and Komei Wachi just 2-1/2 years ago ended the District’s most exciting art era. But, not to worry — all is not lost. The recently established Katzen American University Museum offers enough of their idiosyncratic collection and gallery art to bring them back — at least in spirit.
The Katzen’s landmark “Remembering Marc and Komei” is a one-time opportunity to see parts of their 1,500-work cache before it is sold, probably at auction or to a museum.
Theirs is a unique story. French-born art aficionado Marc Moyens came here in 1945 to work as a multilingual interpreter, landed a job at the World Bank, collected intensively and founded Gallery Marc in 1969.
It was part of the city’s first “gallery rows” — this one on the “P Street strip” in Northwest — which included the eccentric Henrietta Ehrsam’s Henri and Cuban-born Ramon Osuna’s Pyramid galleries.
Nearby, the legendary Alice Denny held sway at the revolutionary Jefferson Place Gallery, and the also-legendary Walter Hopps set up the experimental Washington Gallery of Modern Art. Both gave breaks to numerous — especially local — artists.
Described by one writer as “creepy and menacing,” the Frenchman’s “H. Marc Moyens Collection” played to mixed reviews at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1969.
When Mr. Wachi, a Japanese-born mathematician, joined the gallery in 1975, the two formed an unbeatable team that bucked art trends — such as that of the then-fashionable Washington Color School — with Hieronymus Bosch-like surreal evocations.
The duo, it should be noted, disdained 1960s pop as well.
Consider the collection’s most fantastic works, all displayed at Katzen: Austrian “fantastic realist” Ernst Fuchs’ otherworldly double-headed and -winged “Angel of Death” (1952-58); Mexican Jose Luis Cuevas’ pre-William Wiley dunce-capped “Funeral of a Dictator: The Farce” (1957-58); Dutchman Co Westerik’s prickly man-woman “Zonnebader” (1967); American John Wilde’s bizarre but Renaissance-like double-headed “Elder Statesmen” (1960); beatnik-San Franciscan Jess’ magazine-collaged “Embarkation for Kythera” (1963); and West Coaster Roy De Forest’s wild-menned “Dual World of Alfred Katz” (1971).
Mounted on the exhibition’s first floor, they’re from the collection Mr. Moyens initially built while traveling extensively and buying art, mainly in Europe. He may well have seen works by Bosch, the 15th-century Flemish master of the magical, as well as Bosch’s past and present-day followers.
The art market has confirmed the draw of Mr. Moyens’ once-scoffed-at earlier purchases (which now sell for six figures).
Second-level works, devoted to art collected later at Gallery K, don’t measure up to the initial knock-‘em-dead canvases but do show these artists as “children” of the earlier pioneers.
For example, Gallery K catapulted Washingtonian Joe Shannon’s outrageous figure groupings to fame, especially with the exhibit’s “Businessmen” (1970), in which one figure sticks out his orange-colored tongue at the other. The wild-eyed, freaky-haired “heads” by local artist Jody Mussoff were favorites of both Mr. Moyens and Mr. Wachi, who, in turn, popularized them with Washingtonians.
William Newman writes in the show’s catalog that the exhibit’s “Peter and the Chute” came from a human fetus preserved in formaldehyde in his studio. He called the fetus “Peter” and “he” proved a great inspiration for Mr. Newman until the fetus disappeared one day from his studio. “I was distraught; to relieve my angst I painted ‘Peter and the Chute.’ I always hoped to find Peter.”
Another satirical standout is Sidney Lawrence’s “Peaceable Kingdom” (1982), a West Coast-funk-like spoof of Abram Lerner, then the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s director, and Ms. Mussoff.
When the collectors’ choices seem to dissolve, so do those of American University Museum Director Jack Rasmussen.
“Marc and Komei let their artists sell off their best works and took what was left,” he says. For example, works by Washingtonians Fred Folsom and Kevin McDonald are second-rate, probable “leftovers” from their shows.
At first glance, Mr. Moyens and Mr. Wachi couldn’t have been more different. The rotund, suave Frenchman liked to hold forth at gallery openings, but the soft-spoken, diminutive Mr. Wachi, 16 years Mr. Moyens’ junior, sat behind the gallery desk offering Japanese tea and encouraging artists.
They died within six weeks of each other, Mr. Moyens of an apparent heart attack at 83 in April 2003 and Mr. Wachi, 67, of pancreatic cancer in May.
These two expatriates, both impassioned art lovers, changed the art history of the nation’s capital, and Mr. Rasmussen is to be congratulated for seizing the opportunity to tell their story — although, as he notes, “It’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
WHAT: “Remembering Marc and Komei”
WHERE: Katzen American University Museum, Ward Circle at the intersection of Massachusetts and Nebraska avenues NW
WHEN: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, noon to 4 p.m. Sundays